Conservation Outdoors

Outdoors with SAWS: Addressing the Need for Wilderness Stewardship

All-women SAWS field crew on Tusquitee Bald. Photo by Kristy Ealdwine

By Emma Castleberry

Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) was founded in 2010 to address the need for stewardship across the southeast. Wilderness maintenance is a unique challenge­—the areas are remote and difficult to access, and often the use of motorized tools like chainsaws is prohibited. Sometimes local trail clubs are reluctant to support the designation of new wilderness because they don’t have the capacity to maintain it. “SAWS was born from this need for stewardship, particularly from young adults and the next generation of conservation stewards,” says SAWS executive director Kaitlin de Varona. “We provide capacity and care for wild public lands in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.”

Founded in 2010, SAWS has a broad scope of work, including improving sustainability and access in wilderness areas as well as providing planning and management support, data collection, safety and risk assessment, post-disaster recovery, invasive species management, volunteer training and management, and visitor education and engagement. The group’s service area includes the 87 wilderness areas in the Forest Service Southern Region, totaling approximately 800,000 acres. “These are mostly small, yet extremely valuable tracts of land that happen to be within a one-day drive to half of America’s 330 million people,” says de Varona.

Stonework by SAWS field crew, Bald River Gorge Wilderness, TN.

September of 2024 will be the 60th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. To understand the importance of SAWS, one must understand that the federally designated wilderness located within national parks and national forests is managed differently than adjacent non-wilderness lands. Land within a wilderness boundary is subject to stricter preservation rules that often prohibit roads, motorized vehicles and structures. “Many people refer to ‘wilderness’ as the woods or a forested area,” says de Varona, “but wilderness can also have a very specific meaning in public land management. Sometimes it is very intentionally undeveloped and natural.”

Every year, SAWS organizes the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Skills Institute (WSI), an award-winning training partnership between the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the US Forest Service and SAWS. Hosted at the Cradle of Forestry in America in Pisgah Forest, WSI is a free two-week stewardship training experience that features designated wilderness education and traditional tool courses. Since its inaugural year in 2011, an estimated 1,500 individuals have attended WSI.

As one might expect for an organization of this size and scope, volunteering opportunities are varied and abundant. Paul Dickens, board member and treasurer with SAWS, volunteers regularly, offering traditional tool training for tools like the crosscut saw and ax which are used to clear downed trees off of trails in wilderness and backcountry areas. “SAWS is very effective at putting ‘boots on the ground’ to address trail maintenance and land management needs in wilderness and backcountry public lands,” he says. “Through SAWS I get to train and do trail work with many people of different generations that I otherwise would not have contact with.”

Important upcoming projects for SAWS include trail building in Old Fort in the Grandfather Ranger District; a trail re-routing and maintenance project in the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness in the Pisgah Ranger District; and a partnership with USFS Job Corps to provide trail crew work, experience and workforce development to help students find meaningful careers in conservation.

“Partnering with the Forest Service and other stakeholders, SAWS shares the responsibility to care of our wild public lands for recreation, moments of solitude and land preservation for the next generation,” says de Varona. “SAWS has been able to connect more communities to their wild public lands and today remains a strong example of capacity building and work accomplishment through partnerships with shared mission and values.”

To learn more, find Wilderness Stewards on Facebook and Instagram, or visit to sign up for the newsletter or register for a volunteer day.

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